Each year, an assistant provost surveys Williams students. For the past nine years, only the freshman profile was compiled annually; other surveys were collected with less regularity. With the arrival of Assistant Provost Rick Myers in August 1998, the surveys became a more regular mechanism to gauge and improve campus life.
Williams belongs to two consortiums that share survey information. COFHE, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education is a group of select liberal arts colleges, Ivy League universities and other top institutions.
“We share financial information and survey projects. If I’m doing surveys here, chances are they are doing them too,” Myers said. HEDS, the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, is a much larger data sharing consortium than COFHE.
The results and a preliminary report on the spring 1999 Williams surveys, including the freshman profile, student experiences and satisfaction, academic engagement, course surveys and senior surveys are available at www.williams.edu/admin-depts/provost/ir/reports.html.
The spring 1999 satisfaction measures were “based on a single summary-level question for each unit or activity. As such, they are intended as a barometer, not a thorough evaluation, of student satisfaction in that area. The results simply highlight areas where additional research and exploration will be needed,” reads the student satisfaction and experiences preliminary summary report. Whether more focused surveys will be pursued this year is under discussion.
Likely possibilities include class size and academic advising.
“Like many institutions, there is a black hole in advising between freshman year and declaring a major. Part of any study we do will include what students are looking for from advising and what the College thinks it needs to provide. Satisfaction among freshman and tailing off [among sophomores and juniors] suggests that black hole effect,” Myers said.
Focus groups of 10 to 15 students will also participate in discussions to explore identified problems more deeply. In addition to the more specific studies, the Provosts’ Office will continue broad, campus-wide surveys. “We know we’re going to do the freshman survey, which is a census survey. I would like to get on a cycle where we do senior surveys every year or two years. This gives us the flexibility to participate in other national surveys. If the college has an interest in a particular area, it could also do a smaller survey, a program evaluation,” said Myers.
This year, the freshman survey and admitted students questionnaire were completed. The College is also working with the University of Michigan on a study of whether minority student academic and non-academic experiences differ from those of non-minority students and whether the causes of withdrawal and transfer differ for minority students.
An alumni study will also begin, studying “essentially the long term impacts of the experience at Williams,” Myers said.
Comparing Williams to schools he has surveyed in the past, Myers said, “Overall, students here are amazingly satisfied. There is a very content student body here.” Approximately 96 percent of respondents reported being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their general experience at Williams. Students were particularly satisfied with “access to faculty members,” (100 percent satisfaction), “foreign study opportunities, overall academic experience, library services and materials, campus security, the registrar’s office, athletic programs, the residential experience and the availability of cultural activities,” all at least 90 percent satisfaction. At least 40 percent of students were dissatisfied with “academic advising and the career planning office.”
At least 20 percent were dissatisfied with “dining services, computer services, financial aid packages, class size and course availability, sense of community on campus, student governance, and the opportunities to meet students from other residence halls.”
The report notes, “Some areas, such as dining services and career services, are notorious in higher education for receiving lower ratings at most institutions.” Data comparing Williams to its counterparts are being collected. The results differed slightly across divisions of major and class years.
The report identifies to what extent students think common problems exist at Williams. “75 percent of respondents identified alcohol abuse and sexual orientation harassment as problems.”
Eating disorders, feeling lonely, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity, drug abuse and sexual harassment were also identified from a list of pre-selected possible problem areas. Students self-generated the areas of class size, diversity, and student activities.
Students identified access to faculty, the housing system and structure and small class sizes as “areas that the College should not change.”
The report summarizes the “student-reported impact of college.” Students reported the influence of their college experience on a broad range of areas in their lives, including general knowledge, analytic thinking, self understanding, cultural awareness and career appreciation.
The summary reports “while essentially all respondents felt that Williams was doing a good job of preparing them for graduate school (95 percent) and enhancing them intellectually (95 percent), only half felt that Williams was doing a good job developing students’ moral and ethical skills (54 percent). And only one-quarter of students reported that the College was performing well at fostering a sense of community service among students.”
As with satisfaction, “The self-reported impacts do differ somewhat by class year and the division of the student major.”
The report addresses student academic experiences. “Students report significantly more frequent out-of-class academic interaction with one another than they do with faculty.”
The report also points out, “Approximately one-third of respondents frequently attended faculty office hours. Perhaps most notably, only seven percent of students felt that they frequently delivered oral presentations at Williams.”
The role of instructional technology was also assessed. “While over half of the respondents report using technology frequently to communicate with other students or to collect information (e.g. from the internet), far fewer students report using the available technology in more “creative” ways,” such as developing presentations or to analyze data, reads the report.
“Only 24 percent of respondents felt that Williams’ faculty frequently used computers or other forms of technology in significant ways in teaching a course,” Myers said.
Myers identifies the use of technology and presentation opportunities as areas the College ought to address. “I continue to be concerned about the use of technology on this campus I’m concerned when I see feedback from students that use it as a communication tool, but they don’t use it as a tool in their education. I wouldn’t identify it as a problem, but it’s something we should keep an eye on,” he said.
“Opportunities for students to give presentations and opportunities for students to work effectively in groups are two areas stressed over and over by employers. We should focus on building those skills throughout all four years here.”
US News Rankings
Myers also provides information for US News & World Report to use in their independent college rankings. Williams ranked third in 1999. On the rankings, Myers said, “I think human nature is to look for simple answers to complicated questions.”
Although the ran
kings simplify the complicated issue of college quality, Myers said “It’s important that we remain in the top three; that’s kind of the core group, Williams, Swarthmore and Amherst.”
Myers pays particular attention to one element in the US News report, academic reputation. Administrators at the nation’s top colleges and universities compile this measure from rankings.
Currently, Williams ranks first in this category. Ultimately though, the US News rankings offers only one piece of information for incoming college students to use in their search.
“I think the more information we can put in the hands of students the better,” Myers said.